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Aug. 26, 2020, 2:56 p.m. EDT

Coronavirus update: Health experts express alarm at CDC change in testing guidelines that exclude asymptomatic patients

‘Our work on the ‘silent’ spread underscores the importance of testing people who have been exposed to COVID-19 regardless of symptoms. This change in policy will kill,’ says one expert

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By Ciara Linnane, MarketWatch

AFP via Getty Images

Health experts expressed alarm Wednesday at news that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had changed its guidance on testing for COVID-19 and will no longer recommend a test for people who show no symptoms.

As asymptomatic carriers are a key reason for the spread of the virus, the news was widely criticized on social media and elsewhere.

“You do not necessarily need a test unless you are a vulnerable individual or your health-care provider or state or local public health officials recommend you take one,” the CDC said.

That marks a change from previous guidance that people who had spent more than 15 minutes with an individual who had tested positive for the virus should also get tested, regardless of the presentation of symptoms. The U.S. has conducted more than 73 million tests this year, and about 6 million of them have come back positive, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Coming just days after the head of the Food and Drug Administration, Stephen Hahn, was forced to acknowledge that a comment he made Sunday about the use of convalescent plasma as a treatment for hospitalized COVID-19 patients was inaccurate, the news is a second blow this week to the credibility of a leading U.S. public health agency.

“Our work on the ‘silent’ spread underscores the importance of testing people who have been exposed to COVID-19 regardless of symptoms,” Alison Galvani, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Modeling and Analysis, tweeted. “This change in policy will kill.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the move was political, “not science.”

It is estimated that up to 40% of people who have COVID-19 are asymptomatic, meaning they do not demonstrate common symptoms of an infection like coughing or muscle aches, according to one research letter published in May in JAMA Network.

The news also comes after the U.S. counted 38,200 new cases on Tuesday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, up a few hundred from Monday though better than last week when cases were above 40,000 most days.

In all, 5.79 million people in the U.S. have been infected, or roughly a quarter of the global total, according to the Johns Hopkins data. There have been more than 179,000 deaths in the U.S., by far the highest in the world. On a per capita basis, the U.S. currently ranks fifth in the world with 54.55 deaths per 100,000 people, after Peru, Spain, Chile and Brazil.

Rural Illinois is emerging as something of a hot spot with cases up 14% from the average of two weeks ago, according to a New York Times tracker. Illinois counted 1,756 new cases on Tuesday and 32 new deaths. The state has had at least 225,812 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 8,155 deaths since the start of the outbreak.

In other news:

• The Trump administration has threatened to cut Medicare and Medicaid funding to hospitals if they do not report COVID-19 patient data and rest results to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Associated Press reported. The threat was included in new emergency rules announced by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The program has been voluntary until now. The new rules also apply to nursing homes.

The American Hospital Association called the new rules a “heavy-handed regulatory approach” and complained that it was not consulted.

“This disturbing move, announced in final form without consultation, or the opportunity to provide feedback through appropriate administrative procedures prior to it becoming effective, could jeopardize access to care and leave patients and communities without vital health services from their local hospital during a pandemic,” Rick Pollack, president and CEO of the association, said in a statement. The rule “should be reversed immediately,” he said.

See: WHO says plasma treatment touted as breakthrough by Trump is unproven, advises caution

• In a sign of just how far and wide COVID-19 can spread without containment measures, an international meeting held by Biogen Inc. /zigman2/quotes/201531540/composite BIIB +0.71%  in February led to about 20,000 cases in four counties in Massachusetts by early May, way more than the 99 previously identified, the Boston Globe reported, citing three scientists involved in a new study.

The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, was backed by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the CDC and private donors including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

“Our results highlight the failure of measures to prevent importation into [Massachusetts] early in the outbreak, underscore the role of superspreading in amplifying an outbreak in a major urban area, and lay a foundation for contact tracing informed by genetic data,” the authors wrote.

• There are growing concern that Lebanon could lose control of the virus, after a spike in cases following the massive explosion in capital Beirut on Aug. 4, the Guardian reported.

The country’s interim prime minister, Hassan Diab, said the number of new infections is climbing fast, “and if this continues, we will lose control of this epidemic,” he said, according to a statement issued by the supreme defense council.

Lebanon counted 525 new cases on Tuesday and 12 deaths, the paper said. Cases doubled in the two weeks after the explosion, which left many people homeless and damaged hospitals.

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